A Commentary by John Stott
MATTHEW. 6:1. A Christian’s religion: not hypocritical but real (continued).
The fundamental warning Jesus issues is against *practising your piety before men to be seen by them*. At first sight these words appear to contradict his earlier command to ‘let your light shine before men, that they may see…’ (5:16). In both verses he speaks of doing good works ‘before men’ and in both the objective is stated, namely in order to be ‘seen’ by them. But in the earlier case he commands it, while in the later one he prohibits it. How can this discrepancy be resolved? The contradiction is only verbal not substantial. The clue lies in the fact that Jesus is speaking against different sins. It is our human cowardice which made him say ‘Let your light shine before men’, and our human vanity which made him tell us to beware of practising our piety before men. A.B.Bruce sums it up well when he writes that we are to ‘show when tempted to *hide* and ‘hide when tempted to *show*. Our good works must be public so that our light shines; our religious devotions must be secret lest we boast about them. Besides, the end of both instructions of Jesus is the same, namely the glory of God. Why are we to keep our piety secret? It is in order that glory may be given to God, rather than men. Why are we to let our light shine and do good works in the open? It is that men may glorify our heavenly Father.
The three examples of ‘religious’ righteousness which Jesus gives – almsgiving, praying and fasting – occur in some form in every religion. They are prominent, for example, in the Koran. Certainly all Jews were expected to give to the poor, to pray and fast, and all devout Jews did so. Evidently Jesus expected his disciples to do the same. For he did not begin each paragraph, ‘If you give, pray, fast, then this is how you should do it’ but ‘*When*’ you do so (2, 5, 16). He took it for granted that they would.
Further this trio of religious obligations expresses in some degree our duty to God, to others and to ourselves. For to give alms is to seek to serve our neighbour, especially the needy. To pray is to seek God’s face and to acknowledge our dependence on him. To fast (that is, to abstain from food for spiritual reasons) is intended at least partly as a way to deny and so to discipline oneself. Jesus does not raise the question whether his followers will engage in these things but, assuming that they will, teaches them why and how to do so.
The three paragraphs follow an identical pattern. In vivid and deliberate humorous imagery Jesus paints a picture of the hypocrite’s way of being religious. It is the way of ostentation. Such receive the reward they want, the applause of men. With this he contrasts the Christian way, which is secret, and the only reward which Christians want, the blessing of God who is their heavenly Father and who sees in secret.
Tomorrow: Matthew 6: 2-4. 1) Christian giving.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.